Foundations of Education


Surveys alternative approaches to teaching and learning.

Key Concepts

  • free schools
  • alternative schools

Graded Tasks

  • prepare for your seminar this week (2 tasks)

From Free Schools to Alternative Schools

You may recall the following text from the 20th century timeline presented in Week 8:

"1960s Counterculture Movement (circa 1960 - 1975): An extended period of social upheaval characterized by a largely youth-led anti-establishment sentiment that found its manifestation in new lifestyles and subcultures, as well as widespread protest movements (particularly against the Vietnam War) and the rise of the civil rights movement in the United States."

Being largely youth led, education played a key role in the 1960s counterculture movement. For example, there were widespread protests at universities. () The Hall-Dennis report (discussed in Week 10) was also a product of this period (albeit, a relatively tame one, as it was vetted through institutional and adult sensibilities). More generally, progressive/child-centred education flourished during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Nevertheless, some educators and students were intent on going even further. Under the guise of so-called 'radical education' approaches and through collaborative grassroots initiatives, they were committed to giving students near total freedom to control their own learning in schools.

Free Schools (~1960 - ~1980)

Teachers, parents, and students who were disenchanted with public schooling in the 1960s and 1970s banded together to create hundreds of free schools throughout North America. Most were small communities of a few dozen or so students and teachers. Many were housed in non-traditional school locations, such as farms, churches, donated space, and shared facilities. Some free schools were residential schools at which students learned, lived, and worked odd jobs (e.g., maintaining the school grounds), similar to a commune.

(The word "free" in "free schools" refers to the anti-authoritarian sensibility which characterized the free school movement. Most free schools were in fact independent private schools for which there was a fee to attend, sometimes waived or subsidized.)

Free schools emphasized an egalitarian, participatory democracy approach to decision-making. For example, it was not uncommon for every person at the school - from the youngest child to the oldest adult - to each have their own vote in terms of the governance of the school.

Free schools also had no proscribed curriculum that teachers and students were required to follow. Students decided when, what, and how they learned, pursuing their own interests throughout each school day. Freedom to direct nearly every aspect of one's learning was a defining characteristic of the free school movement. In fact, in most free schools, students were free to decide whether they even attended classes.

In Ontario, one of the most well known free schools was Everdale School. ()

By far, the most well known free school in the world - still in existence today - is Summerhill School in the United Kingdom. ()

Watch the 28 minute National Film Board of Canada documentary about Summerhill School which was released in 1966:

In preparation for your seminar this week, write out an answer to the following question. Your TA may call on you to share your answer in the seminar:
Q10.5: Would you have thrived as a child and/or teenager in a free school like Summerhill? Why or why not? (Answer Length: 100 - 150 words | Format: Point Form)
Potential Seminar Question

Alternative Schools (~1970 - present)

The free school movement reached the height of its popularity in the 1970s. By the 1980s, the movement had waned as more conservative forces in education gained prominence (as exemplified by The Nation at Risk report discussed in Week 8).

Over the ensuing years, elements of the alternative education approaches advocated by the free school movement were gradually integrated into a growing number of alternative schools, albeit within the institutional framework of school boards and minus the most radical 'freedom in education' principles espoused by the free school movement.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) - Canada's largest school board - has well over two dozen elementary and secondary alternative schools that students (care of their parents/guardians) can elect to attend (free-of-charge) instead of a traditional school.

Here is how the TDSB describes its alternative school options:

"Alternative schools are safe, highly engaged, smaller school environments. They use non-traditional hands-on approaches to learning the required Ontario Ministry of Education curriculum. Each school has a distinct identity and focus, such as democratic education, holistic learning, physical art, mindful living, entrepreneurship, social justice, community outreach and more. These schools are ideal for students seeking an alternative to mainstream education and who want to take an active role in their own learning."

Each alternative school is unique, but virtually all of them incorporate elements of the progressive/child-centred approach to teaching and learning discussed this week.

Log into the LMS and answer the following forum question which is a graded task:
Q10.6: Navigate to the website of an alternative school in Toronto (see the list on the "From Free Schools to Alternative Schools" topic page) or another school board in Ontario and summarize what is unique about the school. Be sure to name the school. (Answer Length: 100 - 150 words | Format: Point Form)
Potential Seminar Question
📌 This week has discussed a number of alternative education approaches which challenge the direct instruction approach - i.e., progressive/child-centred education, the activity centre classroom, free schools, and alternative schools.

But a myriad of other alternative education approaches have also emerged over the years, including the Montessori school movement (), Waldorf education (), open education (), speciality schools (such as arts-focused high schools) (), project-based schools (), charter schools (), and home schooling (), not to mention the deschooling and unschooling movements ().

How best to educate children and adolescents has been a hotly debated topic over the last century. Indeed, beginning with Pestalozzi nearly two centuries ago, educational reformers have put their novel ideas into practice, opening new schools that experiment with new approaches to teaching and learning.

Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has necessarily resulted in the rise of yet another alternative education approach - online and remote learning - which will be a focus of Week 12 of the course.